Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva (@rivefuentes), Head of Research, Oxfam
Seventeen years ago, in 1997, as a young university student in Mexico, I was preparing for my first trip abroad – I moved to Montreal with an exchange scholarship at the University of Montreal. I was quite excited and afraid at the same time. It was a big move for me. Just as I was getting ready, the news from Chiapas, the southern Mexican state, came. Forty-five people – many children and women- were murdered in the rural town of Acteal while they were praying.
The murders occurred in the context of the Zapatist rebellion that had started in January 1994 in Chiapas. The people killed were part of a pacifist group with sympathy for the Zapatist movement and the murderers were a paramilitary group. At the time news came mostly through newspapers, there was no social media and the Internet was a rare commodity. I remember the anger and the pain – innocent and defenseless people being murdered during their spiritual moment for political reasons. When I finally got to Montreal, I couldn’t talk about anything else. I was ashamed of Mexico and what could happen to some of its citizens.
Last week I visited Mexico City where I chaired a session on inequalities in Latin America during the Latin American Journalism Summit. I was in Mexico for a few days but the only topic on everyone’s mind was the disappearance and possible murder of 43 rural students in the southern state of Guerrero. This time, the students were abducted by local police. The details are murky but this is more or less well established: the students took some buses and drove around 250 km from the town of Ayotzinapa to Iguala, a larger city. In Iguala, they may or may not have interrupted a public event. That’s when the local police and other armed groups appeared. On September 26, six people were killed, some of them bystanders. Forty-three students disappeared. A few days later, a mass grave was found and many assumed that it must be the students. However, early this week Mexico’s attorney general reported that DNA tests have shown that the bodies are not those of the missing students.
The context this time is rather different: it is a combination of collapsed local institutions overtaken by organized crime and the complete absence of the rule of law in some parts of rural Mexico. The blurred line between crimes of omission and commission has disappeared. The local authorities are actively participating in these crimes. The circumstances where this is possible have been developing for quite some time. The federalism in Mexico was more of a charade during the authoritarian regime of the PRI until 2000,. Local authorities were accountable to the state authorities that would then report to the President and the federal government. This informal system collapsed after the presidential elections of 2000. Organized crime saw an opportunity and, over the years, captured a large chunk of Mexico’s local institutions.
This dangerous concoction is what allows these brutal actions against the students. Ioan Grillo, who has covered the drug war in Mexico, has called it an “act of pure unadulterated evil.” Grillo explains in the New York Times that, “Drug cartels are taking over chunks of government apparatus, from local police forces to city and state governments. Sometimes, they control the officials; other times, cartel members themselves are the officials. I call it state capture. A student I talked to had a more visceral term for it: narco-politica, or narco-politics.”
It’s hard to accept that 17 years have not improved anything in Mexico and that four dozen people can be killed or abducted or both by a group of armed men for political reasons. Worse, people I talked to in Mexico City are all saying: And nothing will change, no one will get punished. How is that acceptable in an upper-middle-income country? It makes me feel that we, as Mexican citizens, are also failing.
But I would be lying if I said that Mexico has not changed. There are signs of progress. Mexico city has vastly improved and it’s now a thriving, cosmopolitan city that attracts young people from all over the world with its opportunities and lifestyle. And yet all that pales immediately in the face of ruthless violence against students (they were training to become teachers) a few hundred miles away. Success in Mexico cannot be measured by how hip the central neighborhoods in DF are.
On one of the mornings when I was in Mexico city, I went for a walk to Chapultepec, our Central Park of sorts. In a hidden corner there is a rather new memorial. It reminded me somewhat of the holocaust memorial in Berlin. There are several steel planks of different height over a shallow fountain. It’s a beautiful space. It remembers all the people killed in “state violence”. In one of the first steel planks, there is a long list of dates: Tlatelolco 1968, Santo Tomas 1971, Acteal 1997, Ciudad Juarez 2000-2013, and others. While I was walking around, I realized that the list was incomplete. That we now must surely add Ayotzinapa 2014 and also add the names of almost 50 people killed in their youth for being politically active. The state is failing and we are failing as Mexican citizens. 17 years later, I am ashamed of Mexico, again.